John Rellah, Jr. Will Be Following His Own Vision This Weekend
[Between now and the Bocuse d’Or USA finals this Saturday, February 6, Toqueland will profile as many of the finalists as possible.]
In September 2008, John Rellah, Jr. drove himself and his cooking equipment all the way down from the Tri-State area to Orlando, Florida, to compete in the Bocuse d’Or USA team selection event at Epcot.
The drive down was fine—Rellah had cooked for some of the best chefs in the country, like Gray Kunz at Lespinasse, and had been an executive chef in his own right for years, and was full of optimism. But after failing to win, place, or show, or even to nab one of the booby prizes like best meat or best fish in Orlando, his drive home was a long, solemn affair, and his thoughts were consumed with what had gone wrong.
The thing that nagged at him the most was the feeling he’d been given bad direction by some of the Bocuse d’Or USA advisors, who urged the finalists to “cook American.” Personally, Rellah didn’t believe that was a solid foundation for success in Lyon, at least not based on his own research, and that it was a bad way to go in Orlando. “I don’t think [chef and Bocuse d’Or judge] Philippe Rochat wants to taste maple syrup,” he said at the time. But he went with the suggested plan of attack, preparing an American themed menu, and as he autopsied his loss, he thought that had a lot to do with what went wrong.
On that same drive, he decided he wanted to try again, and that he would stick to his own instincts the next time and present what he thought would do well in Europe. By the time he pulled up in the driveway of his home, where he lives with his wife and two young children, he already had ideas for what he wanted to cook in 2010, if he made the cut and was selected as a finalist again.
His experience in the Bocuse d’Or USA also inspired Rellah to make a life change. He showed up in Orlando weighing about 400 pounds, and when he saw pictures and video of the event, “I was disgusted.” He spoke to a nutritionist friend who put him onto a program called Isogenics, with a focus on eating healthfully and other lifestyle adjustments, and has been devotedly following it ever since. Impressively, Reallah is down to 245 pounds, and as he’s about 6-feet tall, only has about 25 pounds more to drop to reach his target weight.
“I feel great,” he says. The way the change has effected him also points out the nexus of sports and cooking that I personally find so interesting about the Bocuse d’Or. Although, at the time, Rellah didn’t feel that his weight impacted his performance last time, as he looks forward to Hyde Park, “I feel like I’m definitely more physically ready for this, which makes me stronger mentally … and more confident…When you’re lean and tight everything sort of follows from that.”
In 2008, Rellah was the executive chef of the Hamilton Farm Golf Club Gladstone, NY, but missed working in New York City, where he’d made his bones, most recently as executive chef of the Union Club. He had a relationship with the COO of the New York Yacht Club in Midtown Manhattan, who was looking to make a change, and brought Rellah in. “It’s a good fit,” says the chef. “It’s a fantastic club with deep rooted traditions and heritage, and I enjoy and respect that.” Rellah’s also simply loving working in Manhattan again, where he spent his formative years as a cook and chef de partie, and where he can bask in the glow of neighbors like Daniel Boulud’s DB Bistro Moderne, just three doors down the block from him.
Rellah’s deadly serious about making a better showing at the Bocuse d’Or this time, and has enlisted a commis, Alexadner Flynn, from the French Culinary Institute. Flynn has taken a leave from the FCI and he and Rellah have been working twelve-hour days preparing for Hyde Park.
Rellah will be following his own star this time, using ideas he began to formulate on that drive north from Orlando. “I’m going back to my roots. Going back to my training. Doing more classical French methods of presentation with contemporary presentation.” He also unapologetically says he’ll be taking some inspiration from his old chef Gray Kunz, namely some Mediterranean and Middle Eastern accents. He also plans to emphasize done-ness (a major focus of judging in Lyon), and to bringing a wide spectrum of popular culinary competition techniques and preparations from gelees to sous vide, to the table.
“I’m looking forward to this,” says Rellah. “I think I’m going to do well. I really do.”